Students, teachers and many of Don Stewart’s players were shocked Monday when the incredibly successful coach decided it was time to step down after 26 years.
“It was a very tough decision,” Stewart said after he told Paul Ruby, Lely athletic director of his decision on Monday.
“There is only so much time and it is time to spend more time with my family,” Stewart said.
“I have been blessed, but I want to be around my grandchildren. My daughter, Hannah, is becoming a young lady right before my eyes. It is time to spend more time with them. Most people do not have a clue how much time and energy is spent coaching basketball.
“I have counted the time a real privilege, but it is time to step down.”
Principal Ken Fairbanks said, “No one saw this coming, so there has not even been time to digest Don’s retirement. We will move slowly after sitting back and looking at the big picture.
“With the economy the way it is, and high schools losing teachers, we have to wait and see what opening we have after scheduling is completed. We may have some folks in house, or from the district that are interested. The position will be posted and from there we will move slowly.”
Stewart expects to continue as chairman of the Physical Education Department at Lely for another five years.
“Don has been an icon in the field of high school basketball for so many years,” Fairbanks said.
“He not only taught young men the game, but also about life and what it takes to be a person of character. The Lely family wishes him well as he enjoys his grandchildren. I, for one, will miss him walking the sideline.”
In his 26 years Stewart’s teams have won 453 games and competed in the state playoffs 11 times. This year’s team started extremely slow, but rallied to win the Class 4A-District 12 championship, Stewart’s eighth district title. The team made it to the Elite Eight before bowing out.
With son Scott, his Lely team went to the championship game, but fell short in 1983. In 2004 his Lely team was ranked No. 1 in the state for Class 4A before losing in the regional semifinals.
Overall, Stewart took four teams to at least the regional finals.
Marco’s Hornsby family has had a unique relationship with Stewart.
The father, Rik, has been an assistant coach for Stewart for nine years. His son Ryan starred on the 2004 team and his son Zach was a leader on this year’s successful team.
Stewart stopped by the Hornsby home on Sunday night.
“Don stopped by to give us a heads up on his decision,” mom Deb said.
“He wanted us to know ahead of time since the family has meant so much to him,” she said. “He said he had to tell us before it came out. While we talked he said that the Hornsbys had been part of two-thirds of the district titles Lely won (under Stewart), Ryan loves coach Stewart, always will.”
Ryan said that, first of all, if Stewart is sure about retirement that is absolutely what he deserves.
“As a man, I can’t say enough about him,” Ryan said. “I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. I think about the team and what we had going for four years. I watch Zach and see coach as he has always been, flying up and down the sidelines.
Even down the years, when coach didn’t have as much talent, the other coaches knew he would do something with it to be competitive.”
Zach said he was shocked when Stewart told the family, even though there were some rumors “flying around. I didn’t really want to believe it. I wanted him to stick around for another year. (Zach’s senior year). He is a wonderful coach and person. It will be sad to be without him.”
Rik talked about how fortunate it has been for him and his family to have Stewart as the coach at Lely.
“When he called to say he was coming by we talked about him being a legend, the winningest coach in Southwest Florida,” Rik said. “We couldn’t wait for Ryan, then Zach to be with coach Stewart. We appreciate what Don has done, We are very fortunate to have shared a lot of good times and special moments at Lely. Whoever the new coach is, Don isn’t leaving the cupboard bare.”
Possibles are Kim Francisco, Stewart’s long-time assistant and JV coach, and Stewart’s son Scott.
A former Lely star and European professional basketball player, Scott started the basketball program at First Baptist Academy in Naples two years ago.
Don Stewart had hoped that some day Scott would take over for him.
Scott said, “I have to pray about that and think on it a little bit more before I would make any decision if asked.
“I definitely want the best for Lely High. I know as a son and alumni coach Stewart will be missed, that’s for sure.”